From the day that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg named former Hearst Magazines President Cathie Black as his choice for New York City Schools chancellor, Black, a lifelong media exec, had a rough ride in the press, not least over her lack of educational experience. That ride ended Thursday, when Black—whose approval rating had fallen to a dismal 17 percent—stepped down after just four months on the job.
Never mind that her predecessor, Joel Klein, had no experience in education either, except for having attended New York City public schools and a brief stint as a math teacher in the city. Somehow, he still managed to lead the nation’s biggest school system for eight years, making him the longest serving chancellor in the city’s history, according to Bloomberg. By the end of his tenure, he was hailed as a reformer and a “rock star."
But Black never seemed to catch a break. The portrait that quickly emerged in the news was of a woman of privilege with little in common with a school population where more than half the students qualify for free lunch.
To be sure, Black didn’t always help herself. A joke she made about birth control got no laughs from parents concerned about overcrowded schools. In general, she seemed caught off guard by the realities of public life; at other hearings, she appeared unprepared for boos from angry audience members.
Yet her short life in public office also shows how tough the media often are on their own kind. The press cares a lot more about its own industry and its key players than about many other subjects, and is intimately acquainted with the people involved. From the moment Black was named, the media coverage centered on her lack of fitness for the job, her wealth and questionable business success. A few examples:
The working-class New York Daily News summed up its skepticism about Black’s appointment with an enormous “Huh?” on its cover.
The New York Post followed up with a piece in March on Black’s “dismal public profile” resulting from the battle over her appointment and her own public gaffes.
The New York Observer dug up intel on the bad deal Black got on the sale of her Connecticut home (a five-bedroom Colonial with barn and pool). In January, the paper recounted her verbal pitfalls and editorialized that she should do less talking. “After just a few weeks on the job, Ms. Black regrettably is better known for her insensitivity than her creativity,” the Observer opined.
A New York Times profile in November described Black as a woman who broke through glass ceilings but also as an out-of-touch Park Avenue dweller inexperienced in dealing with the thorny social issues associated with education.
New York magazine portrayed Black as more ad saleswoman than superstar manager.